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Gifted Learners and the Middle School:
Problem or Promise?
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education
ERIC EC Digest E535
Author: Carol Ann Tomlinson
Historically, tension has existed between gifted education and middle school education
(Tomlinson, 1992), leaving some advocates of each educational practice suspicious of
the other, and leaving middle school students who are advanced in one or more
dimensions of learning in a sort of educational no-man's-land. While some legitimate
areas of disagreement are likely to persist, there are enough areas of shared belief to
bridge the practice between gifted education and middle school education. This digest
provides an overview of (1) some areas of agreement between the fields, (2) some
areas of tension, and (3) some promising directions that could engage educators in
mutual planning of appropriate services for all middle school students, including those
we sometimes call "gifted."
Shared Beliefs of Gifted Education and Middle School Education
There are at least three areas of common concern shared by gifted education and
middle school education.
First, when it comes to articulated beliefs about what constitutes appropriate
instruction for early adolescents, both groups are proponents of instruction that: (1) is
theme based, (2) is interdisciplinary, (3) fosters student self-direction and
independence, (4) promotes self-understanding, (5) incorporates basic skills, (6) is
relevant to the learner and thus based on study of significant problems, (7) is
student-centered, (8) promotes student discovery, (9) values group interaction, (10) is
built upon student interest, (11) encourages critical and creative exploration of ideas,
and (12) promotes student self-evaluation (e.g., Currier, 1986; Kaplan, 1979; Maker &
Nielson, 1995; Stevenson, 1992).
Second, few educators of the gifted would
argue with the core tenets set forth in Turning Points (Carnegie Task Force
on the Education of Young Adolescents, 1989) that middle school programs should:
(1) create small communities of learning within larger school settings, (2) teach a solid
academic core, (3) ensure success for all students, (4) enable educators closest to
students to make important decisions about teaching and learning, (5) staff middle
schools with teachers trained to work effectively with early adolescents, (6) promote
health and fitness, (7) involve families in the education of learners, and (8) connect
schools with communities.
Third, both groups of educators share a deep
concern for the cognitive and affective welfare of early adolescent learners. Both
groups also understand that there is great variability in the academic, social, emotional,
and physical development of the early adolescent group. Both also subscribe to the
reality that early adolescents are subject to change, including spurts in physical
growth, new interests, and intellectual awareness. And both believe that all middle
school students should take part in challenging learning experiences.
Gifted Education and Middle School Education: Problems and Promise
The following issues have concerned educators in gifted education and middle level
education. But emerging dialogue offers promise and some evident next steps for
moving ahead into a more collaborative future (Clews, 1995).
Excellence vs. Equity
Gifted education exists to foster development of high-end excellence. It therefore
stresses practices that are most likely to promote "expertise" in learners with advanced
performance and/or potential. Middle school education, on the other hand, views
education through an equity lens, where all students have an equal opportunity to
succeed. In a country that has struggled with the competing values of equity and
excellence throughout its history (Gardner, 1961), it is not surprising that both groups
continue to struggle with mechanisms for balancing the belief that all people should
have equal opportunity with the belief that each individual should be assisted in
developing his or her maximum capacity. The tension is heightened in the face of
scarce resources for education.
- Understand the advantages of emphasizing both equity and
- Plan for both personal excellence and equity of access to advancement for all
learners who are at risk, including those who are gifted.
raising the floors and eliminating the ceilings of educational performance.
- Emphasize both personal excellence and "apex" or "high-end"
Emphasis on Heterogeneity
Because middle school educators emphasize the negative impact of homogeneous
grouping on at-risk learners, heterogeneity has become a hallmark descriptor of "good"
middle schools (Carnegie Task Force on the Education of Young Adolescents, 1989).
But educators of the gifted value the benefits of ability grouping for advanced learners.
The availability of some forms of homogeneous grouping for these learners has been
strongly advocated by proponents of gifted education (Allan, 1991). Educators of the
gifted are also concerned about a lack of emphasis on differentiated instruction for
academic diversity in heterogeneous classrooms in the literature of middle school, and
reject a one-size-fits-all approach to educating students as varied as those who inhabit
- Abandon practices that permit or encourage one-size-fits-all
- Replace exclusive services with more inclusive ones.
appropriately differentiated instruction in heterogeneous classrooms.
- Use heterogeneous teams, but group and regroup within a team and across
teams for instructional purposes.
- Offer a variety of classes that allow for student choice.
- Emphasize use
of gifted/talented resource specialists as part of interdisciplinary teams.
Use of Labels
Middle school advocates often reject labeling students as "learning disabled" or "gifted"
(George, 1993). Such labeling, they believe, favors some students and stigmatizes
others. Advocates of gifted education believe that identifying high potential and
performance is necessary if awareness of and planning for talent development is to
occur (Coleman & Gallagher, 1995).
Promising Directions :
- Develop ways to identify and address students' needs without overt
- Work to balance emphasis on student differences and student
- Use the term "gifted" as part of a phrase that describes students as gifted in
mathematics, science, writing, visual arts, music, etc.
Ambiguity About Appropriate Middle School Curricula
For much of its 30-year history, middle school education has attended more to issues
such as student affect, scheduling, detracking, teaming, and school climate than to
what constitutes effective and appropriate curricula in middle school classes (Beane,
1990). Educators of the gifted, who place strong value on challenging opportunities for
advanced learners in their area(s) of strength, have been concerned about middle level
education, including a basic skills approach to instruction. On the other hand, middle
school educators argue that what has been called "gifted education" (e.g., enrichment,
high level thinking, problem-solving) is good education for all learners, and should not
be reserved for any single group of middle school students. They believe that energies
of educators should be focused on establishing that sort of "good education" in
heterogeneous classrooms and that the proliferation of such classrooms would serve
all middle school students well.
- Disavow theories that present middle school students as incapable of
high level thought and complex learning.
- Abandon practices that couch middle
school as a place for drill and skill.
- Collaborate in establishing complex, problem-based, student-centered
curricula, differentiated for student readiness, interest, and learning style.
- Articulate differences between "good education" and "good gifted
- Ensure that services restricted to gifted students are taught at a pace,
level of complexity, and level of abstractness that is consistent with their abilities
and instructional needs.
Use of Cooperative Learning as an Instructional Strategy
Middle school educators promote cooperative learning as a prime means of
establishing effective heterogeneous communities of learning (Slavin, 1980; Toepfer,
1992). Educators of the gifted find that overuse of some cooperative learning
strategies, particularly those focused on learning of basic information and skills, results
in a lack of challenge for advanced learners, inordinate use of these learners as "junior
teachers," and inappropriate pressure for these learners to solve instructional problems
- Acknowledge the appropriateness of collaborative learning for early
- Emphasize problem-based cooperative strategies rather than skill-focused
- Move away from cooperative learning as a "savior" strategy.
and balance cooperation, independence, and healthy competition.
various grouping patterns in cooperative groups, based on instructional
Affective Needs of Early Adolescents
Middle school educators stress development of school environments in which early
adolescents can belong to a nurturing group and have consistent access to adults who
know and care about them (George & Shewey, 1994). Most educators of the gifted
have concerns that affective experiences of advanced learners, which sometimes take
on "a different spin," are overlooked in middle schools where advanced learning is
deemphasized and where few teachers are trained to understand advanced learners.
For example, peer pressure to conform may be experienced in a somewhat different
context by many academically talented females and minority students than by other
agemates (Ford, 1994; Kerr, 1985).
- Recognize that early adolescents share common affective needs, but
experience them in differing ways.
- Plan for both achievement and belonging for advanced learners, with special
emphasis on females and culturally diverse learners.
The result of strongly held and often divergent views about educating early adolescents
has led to some tension between the two groups of educators. Leaders of each group
have not always attempted to build bridges. Publications, conferences, team meetings,
and informal dialogues among educators have only recently begun to break ground in
listening and attempting to find solutions.
- Acknowledge strengths and contributions of both practices.
Use constructive language when discussing the issues.
- Communicate, cooperate,
and collaborate at every level of educational practice.
Allan, S. (1991). Ability grouping research reviews: What do they really say to the
practitioner? Educational Leadership, 48(6), 60-65.
Beane, J. (1990).
A middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality. Columbus, OH:
National Middle School Association.
Carnegie Task Force on the Education of Young Adolescents. (1989). Turning
points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century. Washington, DC:
Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.
Clews, V. (Producer), (1995). In balance: Gifted education and middle schools
(film). Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.
Coleman, M., &
Gallagher, J. (1995). Middle schools and their impact on talent development.
Middle School Journal, 26(3), 47-56.
Currier, L. (1986). A declaration of
independence. A creed for middle school educators. Middle School
Journal, 17(2), 4-6.
Ford, D. (1994). Nurturing resilience in gifted black
youth. Roeper Review, 17(2), 80-85.
Gardner, J. (1961). Excellence: Can we be equal and excellent too? New
York: Harper & Row.
George, P. (1993). Tracking and ability grouping in the middle school: Ten tentative
truths. Middle School Journal, 24(4), 17-23.
George, P., & Shewey, K. (1994). New evidence for the middle school.
Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Kaplan, S. (1979). Inservice training manual: Activities for developing curriculum
for the gifted and talented. Ventura, CA: National/State Leadership Training
Kerr, B. (1985). Smart girls, gifted women. Columbus, OH: Ohio
Psychology Publishing Company.
Maker, J., & Nielson, A. (1995). Teaching models in education of the gifted.
Austin, TX: Pro-ed.
Robinson, A. (1990). Cooperation or exploitation: The argument against cooperative
learning for talented students. Journal for the Education of the Gifted,
Slavin, R. (1980). Cooperative learning. Review of Educational Research,
Stevenson, C. (1992). Teaching ten- to fourteen- year olds. New York:
Toepfer, C. (1992). Middle level curriculum: Defining the elusive. In J. Irvin, (Ed.),
Transforming middle level education. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Tomlinson, C. (1992). Gifted education and the middle school movement: Two voices
on teaching the academically talented. Journal for the Education of the
Gifted, 15(3), 206-238.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is Assistant Professor, Curry School of
The University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely
reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This publication
was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational
Research and Improvement, under contract no. RR93002005. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.
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